Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Words to Live By?

At sundown on January 6, in memory of my father’s death, I’ll light a Yahrzeit candle and let it burn in its special container for 24 hours. Then, as tradition suggests, I’ll use the candle lighting ceremony to reflect on Irving Eugene Shapiro's life. I’ll recall Dad’s easy smile, salesman’s charm, and barrel body. But mostly, I’ll remember his infamous declaration: If I can’t eat, I’d rather die.

Today I wonder – after a lifetime of morning scale readings, measuring spoons, diet books, and weight-loss schemes – is it genetics, my own sloth and appetite, or was it Dad’s pesky proverb, that charted my preoccupation with poundage? And are others similarly swayed by pronouncements by loved ones? To learn, I queried a few friends and submit their contributions:

Karen Carpino (pictured below), president of Karen Carpino Design, a Chicago-based firm that provides Interior Design, Home Staging, and Model Home Design, offers this:

"Mon puo fare piu buio della mizzanotte, said my dear Italian aunt, Mary Ungaro. English translation: ‘Darker than midnight it cannot get.’ Whenever I'd be in a dilemma I could count on Aunt Mary to offer these words. However, over the years I've discovered that sometimes life can certainly shade darker than midnight. And although she's gone for many years, I find her phrase pop to my mind when I'm in a crisis, large or small. You see, I've come to realize this old Italian proverb (and Aunt Mary) have done their job on me. The gift in these words of my ancestors is what I've found most precious in life - hope, always hope.”

Jerry Gleicher (pictured left) is a sales representative with On Time Promotions a Morton Grove-based distributor of promotional products that serves clients locally, nationally and internationally.

(Jerry's company produced the jazzy aprons my family wore in this photo shown below that was taken at Women & Children First bookstore.)

Jerry says his dad’s words of wisdom actually served him well:

“My father, Paul, always told me, It doesn't matter much what you sell so long as you sell lots of it. Another of his favorite phrases was, If you never had a chance to steal, that doesn't make you an honest man.

“My dad owned a small gas station on the corner of Division and Paulina, and his words and work ethic motivated me throughout my life. ‘Be a good husband, father and grandfather,’ he said. And I think he’d be proud of me in that aspect of my life.

“Dad’s been gone for 30 years and my older children and all of my nieces and nephews still talk about him. He was the first person I knew who could make you think you were the number one person in his life. After his death all of his grandchildren claimed to be his favorite and could prove why.

“I only hope the people in my life will remember me as lovingly as they do my dad.”

Robb Packer, (shown in this photo with Joya Fields on his left and Iris Nelson on his right), is the author of "Doors of Redemption: The Forgotten Synagogues of Chicago." He offers this tale:

“When I was a little guy in the 1950's and my family was about to visit friends or relatives, my dad would make sure we had a little something to eat, because you never know. I would always ask my dad, ‘what do you mean, you never know?’ He wouldn’t answer, but would just tell my mom to make something.

“Years later he explained it all by telling us the family legend of the unforgiving meal: Back in the late 1880's, my grandfather was invited for dinner to an uncle's house. This being an unusual occasion and my grandfather and grandmother not having many invitations (they were newly married), they gratefully accepted.

“They prepared for the evening by dressing in their finest Sabbath clothes (the uncle they’d be visiting was very wealthy), and arrived at the appointed time to find everyone sitting around drinking coffee, nibbling on cakes, and smoking cigars. Somehow he got the idea it was for dinner, not just an evening of chatting.

“And ever since that time, until my dad passed away, we never left for an evening at someone else’s house without first having a little nosh. Because you never know.

As for Jim Passin, (photographed here as a young lad) president of Jim Passin Productions, a company specializing in Documentary, TV Production, Computer Graphics/Animation, Post-Production, Original Music, and Digital Photography, here’s his story:

“It's New Year's day. My wife, her sister (Minga The Dark), and I wait for friends to drop over for the traditional New Year's Day celebration featuring delicious blintzes (made by Minga), applesauce (also delicious, made by my wife, Nancy), and Champagne supplied by our guests. Hopefully that, too, will rest pleasantly in the delicious category.

“I have, this year, only one resolution: to loose weight. One would think I'd have more. I stopped smoking, years ago along with most other fun things, and find that as time passes, I can find fewer and fewer things to give up or that ever needed giving up or changing in the first place. Another resolution might be to stop thinking of myself as perfect. This is hard to do. Those who know me will undoubtedly snicker about now.

“Yet, today is indeed a signal year in the arc of my life. It marks the last day of carefree seasonal gorging. There's my birthday, Thanksgiving, Presidents' Day, Flag Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, and anyone else's birthday, anniversary, casual dinner or bar mitzvah I might attend. These are all good and fully certified occasions for gorging. Also, most any other time when food is present. On this account I tend to agree with Elaine's father.

“However, if I still want to be able to look down and see my shoes, among other things, my heart tells me that it is now time to let go of gorging. I used to think that a day without a good gorge isn't worth living. But lately my wife's words have been ringing in my ears, A day without fruit is a day not worth living! She says this often. It is her mantra. Words to live by indeed, by gum! So, I enter the New Year and to those 'words to live by' I might add my own: Never eat anything bigger than your head. This will be my mantra.

Q: Is it still OK to gorge on fruit?
Happy New Year!”

Now that we’ve heard from my friends, I think it’s time to retire my dad’s questionable words of wisdom and instead remember the blessings he passed on it me: his love of family, passion for books, lust for life, and exuberance for Chicago and its characters. And when I strike the match and light the wick to honor his memory, that’s what I’ll hold dear.
Then, I’ll head over to Smoque BBQ, our neighborhood’s newest restaurant, and order a sliced brisket sandwich with fries on the side. And as I savor each juicy bite, I’ll imagine Irv relishing the very same delicacy in the heavenly hereafter. Enjoy, Dad, enjoy.

Gratitude Corner:

To the Chicago Tribune for naming one of the best books of 2006.

To Quill for featuring me on page 165 of their office supply catalog. (Today I am a pencil, stapler, etc.)

To Maryann Mullan for choosing my memoir for her book club’s December discussion topic.

A deep bow to all, and to everyone else who made 2006 a year to remember for my book and me.


Therapy Doc said...

The neshama should have an aliyah, Elaine.

Anonymous said...

Elaine, it is but one month ago that we lit a candle for my mother. She was born in Hungary and to her last words sounded just like Zsa Zsa Gabor! We have learned to understand how her foreign-ness added so greatly to what we most like about ourselves today. Yes, we will never stop missing these most precious souls, but don't we always wear a small smile when we remember their ways? Margie

Danny said...

Love this post. Your dad is such a great character. Who will play him in the movie version of "Division Street Princess?" We had a similar "you never know" ethic in my family. My mother was once visiting me in Paris the year I went to school there and we were taking a train to Strasbourg early one morning to see friends. My mom wanted to stop and get snacks for the train ride and I wouldn't let her, saying that there'd be a dining car on the train and we could have a delicious meal on board. Well, there was no food of any kind on this particular train and she was furious with me, especially because I hadn't even let her grab a cup of coffee. She made me take a photo of her on the train holding up a sign that said
"6 hours on a train with no food. Danny's fault!" I still have it!

Anonymous said...


As I was reading this story, couldn't help but notice that you would be lighting a candle for your dad tonight. On Monday, January 8, it will be l0 years since my dad passed away...we light his yahrzeit candle on January 18.

If I remember correctly, your dad's birthday was in July...so was my dad's (the 13th). How interesting that they both were born in the same month and died in the same month! They will always be in our hearts!

Take care. Love to all!